James Tate Hill is a man of many talents and multiple jobs: He teaches writing online and at North Carolina A&T State University, pens the audiobooks column for Literary Hub and is the fiction and reviews editor for the literary journal Monkeybicycle. In 2015 he became a novelist with the publication of Academy Gothic. And now he’s a memoirist, too, with his new book, Blind Man’s Bluff.
That’s an impressive list of accomplishments—especially since, for nearly 15 years, Hill had an additional exhausting, around-the-clock job: concealing from everyone around him, through a series of strategic misdirections, lies of omission and daring feats of method acting, that he is legally blind.
Thankfully, that era of his life has come to a close, and in Blind Man’s Bluff, Hill is upbeat and candid as he speaks his truth about the years when he was, as he writes, “always relieved people thought I was an asshole and not blind” when he didn’t respond to inquiring glances or friendly waves.
This is an unusual approach to human relationships, the author acknowledges in a call to the Greensboro, North Carolina, home where he lives with his wife. But Hill’s initial fear of stigma and judgment was so all-consuming that engaging in extraordinary efforts to hide what he saw as a terrible flaw seemed entirely reasonable—so much so that it developed into a full-fledged secret life.
Hill’s dedication to obfuscation began at age 16 when he learned he had Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, a condition that causes loss of vision over time as the cells in the optic nerve die. From then on, he would feign eye contact during conversations. At restaurants, he would ask the server for recommendations rather than attempting to read a menu. When he began teaching college classes, he’d tell students to speak without raising their hands.
But what made secret-keeping seem like the right response? “It was definitely the social element, when I realized OK, I’m different, and I don’t like the ways I’m different,” Hill says. He longed for a solution to the anger he felt at his diagnosis and the uncertainty that lay ahead, and he viewed “stoicism as a victory, as an answer.” He thought skipping over his grief would be a sort of solution, without “knowing for a very long time that there was anything problematic with that.”
“Your relationships deepen exponentially when you’re no longer hiding parts of yourself.”
Now in his mid-40s, Hill sees his blindness as a feature rather than a bug and credits his writerly career with helping him take big emotional leaps toward self-acceptance. “Academy Gothic was the first time I was writing in any sort of autobiographical physicality, with the main character having the same impairment that I do,” he says. “It’s not an emotional book. It’s sort of a Raymond Chandler-esque satirical academic mystery.” But it was the personal essays Hill wrote as part of the publicity campaign for Academy Gothic that began drawing attention.
In 2016, Hill’s Literary Hub essay “On Being a Writer Who Can’t Read” got a response “so much more intense than anything else I had written or published,” he says. “It was almost as though I had tapped into an even more honest, more compelling voice than the one I had fabricated for the novel . . . and I slowly realized it was very rewarding to tap into that voice.”
In Blind Man’s Bluff, Hill’s voice ranges from moving to funny to self-loathing to contemplative as he reveals his darkest thoughts and most difficult days alongside precious moments of triumph and joy. He periodically employs the second person—“as a way of acknowledging that my own experience is not exclusive to me,” he says—to excellent effect, especially when homing in on the persistent isolation he felt at home, at school and in his own head.
“I acknowledge as blind. I identify as disabled. It may be trite to say this, but: It’s very liberating.”
Hill also includes well-crafted, hair-raising passages about the risks he took to avoid asking for help as his vision worsened, such as crossing a busy street solo. “Each zooming vehicle is your natural predator deciding capriciously not to eat you,” he writes. There’s also the lower-stakes but still exquisitely nerve-fraying “Grand Guignol of canapes, a chip that must be sent on a recon mission into a dip of unknown depth or viscosity.” And there are hilarious and insightful scenes about online dating, as the author navigates various prospective romantic pairings gone wrong. After all, he remarks, “the more times you present yourself to strangers, the more epiphanies about yourself you’re going to have.”
So far one major transformation has occurred every 14 to 15 years in Hill’s life—losing his vision, telling the truth about his disability and publishing a book about accepting it—and I ask whether this pattern offers a clue about future endeavors. Hill ponders this and declares with a laugh, “Look out, late 50s—I’ll be storming the world!”
Until then, Hill says he’s channeling his new self-awareness, self-acceptance and energy into writing “a weird speculative novel set in the malls of the 1980s and ’90s featuring child stars, some real and some fictional,” as well as into promotional events for Blind Man’s Bluff. He hopes his readers will come away with the realization that “accepting yourself for who you are is a choice. . . . I think your relationships deepen exponentially when you’re no longer hiding parts of yourself.”
As for himself, Hill says, “I acknowledge as blind. I identify as disabled. It may be trite to say this, but: It’s very liberating.”
Author photo credit © Lori Jackson Hill